Updated: May 28, 2020
Capturing animal behavior lies at the core of wildlife photography. While beautiful animal portraits are impressive, often it is the unique and quirky behavior of the animal subjects which create the most memorable images. Trail cameras, then, provide an easy and relatively low-cost means of capturing animals doing their thing when no one is around. As always, you should first check your local laws about the use of trail cams.
Historically, trail cams have been used by hunters to find areas where the game they are targeting might be congregating. Hunters can then judge whether the area is worth spending time there or not. I first began using trail cameras for this very reason. Hunters then return to the trail camera periodically to see what animals tripped the motion sensors. Some companies, like Moultrie or Spypoint, also offer modems or trail cams with built in modems. These modems will notify the owner when images are available. They charge a nominal data fee each month for this service. The only caveat is that the camera must be placed in a location where cellular service is available. In my case, I use the Moultrie modem because they can operate on the Verizon network, which has the best rural coverage in my area.
As I became more involved in photography, I found that I was just as excited to capture images of the animals as I was about hunting them. For example, when I bait bears in the spring, I usually check my trail cam images first thing in the morning just to see what happened over night. I’ve been doing this for the last three or four years and have captured some interesting images and videos. Black bears in various color phases have shown up, as well as a few grizzlies. Deer, elk and moose like to come and check out bear baits, mostly out of curiosity from the sweet smells. Pine martens, squirrels and chipmunks are also regulars on my trail cams as well as ravens. The most surprising visitor I have had, though, was a wolverine. It appeared one day and ate a little of the food then continued on its journey. I notified Idaho Fish and Game and they sent a few officers out to gather some DNA samples. They were able to gather a few hairs for testing before leaving. I was able to learn a little about the research on wolverines being conducted in Idaho as well as where they have been seen. One day, I hope to capture a wolverine on my Nikon.
Where you hang the trail cameras has a dramatic effect on the images you gather. In the northern hemisphere, and especially the further north you go, the sun tends to travel across the southern sky. I always recommend pointing cameras north for that very reason. The sun can trigger trail cameras, so if your camera is facing south with no trees to block the sunlight, you may end up with a memory card full of solar flares. Moreover, when facing north, animals which do appear on the camera are exposed a little better and “pop” more on the photo. In addition to the direction to point the camera, choosing the right angle is important. At a bear bait, for example, I like to have one camera more or less at a bear’s eye level. I also like having one low, just off the ground. I have seen some images where the camera was placed on an overhanging branch, pointed straight down. This gives an interesting perspective and a unique look at the animal. If you are hanging a trail cam along a travel corridor, give consideration to the direction of travel. Getting a shot of animals approaching the camera are awesome. Shots of the south end of a northbound elk are less impressive.
The tech behind these trail cameras has improved dramatically in a very short period of time. It is now common to find cameras which capture images between 12 – 20 MP. Many can also shoot video in HD as well. The image quality will certainly not match that of a DSLR or even many cell phones, but at a minimum it can clue you in on where some unique animals are hiding. For a relatively low investment, trail cams can add some interesting new perspectives and expand your photographic opportunities.